JERUSALEM (Mar. 23)
On the eve of Wednesday’s primary elections for the leadership of the Likud party, the American-educated former Israeli U.N. Ambassador Binyamin Netanyahu appeared poised to win out over his party rivals.
Despite some late slippage in his support, polls still showed Netanyahu, known also as “Bibi,” far ahead of his main rivals, former Foreign Minister David Levy and Knesset member Zeev Binyamin, or “Benny,” Begin
But the real question centered around whether Netanyahu, a former deputy foreign minister as well, could clinch victory in this first round of polls by capturing more than 40 percent of the vote.
If Netanyahu failed to do so, then he might face trouble in a second round if two or more of the losers lined up behind one candidate in an effort to block Netanyahu.
Last-minute appeals to the party’s own Court of Honor and to the nation’s High Court of Justice for a postponement of the polling were swept aside earlier in the week and logistical arrangements were being finalized for the 220,000-odd dues-paying members to vote.
Reports said that all the candidates except for Netanyahu were in favor of postponing the election for what they claimed were technical reasons and irregularities in preparations for the primary.
Begin told supporters Sunday that Netanyahu’s own polls were showing slippage in his popularity.
“Popularity is fickle and transient,” Begin proclaimed. He noted how Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s popularity at the time of the Knesset elections last summer has rapidly eroded in recent weeks.
The other candidate in the Likud race is former minister Moshe Katsav. Former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon has been a passive observer, but said he reserves the right to run against the winner before the next Knesset election.
Netanyahu’s first challenge if he is elected will be to prevent David Levy and his supporters from seceding from the Likud.
In a four-way television debate last week, redolent with bitter recriminations, Levy assailed Netanyahu for having publicly accused him of attempting to blackmail Netanyahu and his wife.
Levy has demanded unsuccessfully that the police inquiry into these charges be wound up before the Likud membership goes to the polls.
Levy has maintained that Netanyahu should withdraw from the race if his charges against Levy prove unfounded.
For his part, Levy pledged to quit political life if they prove true.
Most political pundits felt Netanyahu performed at less than his best in the television battle last week. Many gave high points to the soft-spoken Katsav.